The Meaning of Irony

As a Generation-X’er, I have a special claim to irony. After all, it was our generation that started it in the early 90s with films such as Reality Bites or Henry Fool, and books such as, well, Generation X by Douglas Copeland. With cultural institutions such as religion and the grand march of Western Civilization on the decline, we just had a wonderful bonfire making fun of it all, until it finally burned out.

I never really thought about what irony was, just that it was really fun to do. It had something to do with staying on the surface, not putting yourself at risk, giving things a punchline. I think Umberto Eco  defines it well, as the instinct to say “I love you madly! As Barbara Cartland would say”. Everything sincere was actually not. We put on western clothes, or worker’s clothes salvaged in thrift stores, with our weird hairstyles to show the world we didn’t mean it. My first concert in 1985 was the Cure in Hollywood. To this I wore a 1950s prom dress and 50s stiletto pumps with my spiked and bleached hairstyle. I was listening to harsh nihilistic music wearing an outfit that a 50s debutante would have considered a “dream come true”, but a 1960s hippie would have laughed at. To me it was meaningless, as well as all the emotion it had undoubtedly left in its trail, being accepted, getting the date, rebelling against the establishment. To me it was just thrift store clothes, weird because no one else had them.

90s sub-pop t-shirt “flower sniffin kitty pettin baby kissin corporate rock whores”

We gen-x’ers had a good couple decades of irony, mostly with clothing, but also with emotion. We were like little children watching a love scene, but making fun of it to not feel icky. I remember a sub-pop t-shirt that said “flower sniffen kitty pettin”…well you get the idea. It basically juxtaposed the long haired Seattle stoner against all of all these sensitive images so the meaning was obvious.

But today I heard 2 songs that really represented irony to me. Well actually one song, and that song is “Jolene”. We all know Dolly Parton’s famous version:

She instills it with beauty and poignancy. It’s tragic and so true.  She hates this woman but is in awe of her. She knows when she’s been beat. Women compete with each other over beauty and many are not afraid to steal another woman’s man and wreck her life, “just because she can”. No matter what the #metoo movement says, the ability to touch a man and through her emotions and summon his is a woman’s true power and always will be.

Parton’s performance is anything but ironic. In fact, I doubt that Dolly is or was capable of producing anything ironic.

Then I heard another version, by Strawberry Switchblade, an early English elecro pop band that I like a lot, mainly, and ironically due to their synthesizer sound and over-the-top 80s hairspray and makeup look.

Yet Strawberry Switchblade doing Jolene? 80s postmodern punks HATED country. It was the essence of middle America that we wanted to do away with. Yeah, but maybe in England it was a different attitude, or maybe Strawberry Switchblade just had guts. Maybe they heard the simple, folky, and sad chords of Jolene and heard it as a folk song. They are from Scotland and the folk traditions of bluegrass originate in the UK. Good for them for being brave and not so jaded.

When I first listened to Strawberry Switchblade’s version, audio only, I was laughing. And laughing at this song was pure irony. But also empowering, like laughing at Jolene herself or any woman who could be a threat. Switchblade took such a chilling image of human jealousy, betrayal and triangulation and made it into a very synthesized piece of plastic, with flat vocals devoid of emotion. But then I watched the video a few hours later and realized they did intend for it to have emotion.  They took Jolene absolutely seriously when they made it. And it is emotional when you see the video. And anyone who reads my blog knows that I believe 80s music and video is inseparable.

So Parton’s Jolene with the ability to move your emotions, or Switchblade’s Jolene withe ability to make you feel distantly and mechanically powerful? In this world of endlessly multiplying references, I find myself seeking out irony less and less and trying to get back to the emotion that irony tries to ridicule. Now being able to express that emotion will be my challenge.

Grinderman

I am sorry to say that after the last Nick Cave release, I had kind of given up on him. He’d
lost Blixa Bargeld and seemed content just to wrap himself in pretty flowery ballads. Nick
does OK with a pretty ballad now and then, for example “The Ship Song” or “Alice”, but it is a shame when he neglects the rumbling chaotic hellraiser songs that he does so well.

Well, the hellraiser Nick is back and doing fine with “Grinderman” (the name of the band and the album). “Get It On” is great with the stark and mean spoken-word intro “I’ve got to get up to get down and start all over again. go down into the basement and shout/kick those mouse and black rats out”. I’m not sure how he intended this, but to me it’s a metaphor for his renunciation of delicate flowers, linen CD covers, and
return to coarseness. The call-and-response singing “He’s got some words of wisdom/I’ve got some words of wisdom” is a nice revival of the rootsy style heard in
“Kicking Against the Pricks”. There is nothing nice about the harsh guitars grinding guitars like the rumbling of concrete mixers on a construction site.

“No Pussy Blues” is the one we’re all hearing on YouTube, etc. It’s the
video with all those people hugging and kissing and taking off black Victoria’s Secret bras, or maybe they are from Fredrick’s. Nick’s voice rumbles and threatens with half-crazed dark delusions of a chronically frustrated man. “I thought I’d try another tack/I drank a liter of cognac/I threw her down upon her back/but she just laughed and said she didn’t want to”. Nice tension in the guitars which alternate between soft threatening and the sudden explosions.

“Electric Alice” – Man this one is evocative with an undulating beat and keyboards and maracas and a strange whooshing sound. “Electric Alice in the pale moonlight”. It reminds me of standing
under new electric streetlights in the turn of the century watching a desolate prostitute with children at home. She’s been there since the days of gas lamps and now she’s standing under the buzzing electricity, in the rain poetic and sad and negatively charged – “Don’t the moon look big and round”.

“Depth Charge Ethel” sears it’s way to your heart with mean guitars and a relentless chorus. The lyrics “Depth Charge Ethel/Is Something Special” don’t really interest me much so I won’t write much on the song.

“Go Tell the Women” is groovy, deep and cynical “We are magicians/and we are deceiving/we’re free and we’re lost/Go Tell the Women that we’re leaving”. I think it’s about all of the pleasure and feeling that is lost as we abandon our spiritual animal apelike selves in the pursuit of knowledge, technology, art and everything mental. A very wise and true song.

“(I Don’t Need You To) Set Me Free” is a slow rocking tune that reminds me of “Exile on Main St” – era Stones, as much of Nick’s work has lately.

“Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars)” would never have made sense if I
hadn’t been in love. It could be about wanting to leave humanity and people and earth and bullshit behind make your own non-human world (on Mars). There are some cool buzzing sounds that remind me
of aerosol cans…or bees.

“When My Love Comes Down” is sort of a threatening warning about the impending storm of love and passion which is moving in on a poor pretty thing standing innocently on the corner with skin as white as the fallen snow who will (hopefully) not be rescued by FEMA or any other government agencies.

“Love Bomb” – A classic Nick Cave confessional. Here is Nick the distraught preacher spouting off about his desires and disillusionment. Here Nick lets his voice get really bluesy and damaged-sounding and strong, as only he knows how to work it.

Overall, this album makes up for Nick’s lost reputation. It’s got a great cover with a spotlit monkey holding his crotch and screaming in sexual agony and delight – the performing monkey as the artist giving the people what they want. Monkey gets carnal pleasure and money. Audience gets a cheap thrill. Lucky monkey. Leave it to Nick to prove that monkeys are more highly evolved than the rest of us “artists and mathematicians” who hold “extremely high positions”.

video editing

For some reason, I’ve become addicted to Linux video editing. I’m using an analog video camera to get the footage. Then I burn the video to a DVD using a Liteon DVD recorder. Then I import the DVD on to my computer and edit it using Cinelerra (wonderful program). It’s really fun but way too many late nights. Here is my first little Quicktime movie, which shows off my prodigious video editing skills. Take a look!